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Movie review: 'Don't Worry Darling' thrills with paranoia, provocative themes

1/5
Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) move to the Victory Project in "Don't Worry Darling." Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment
Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) move to the Victory Project in "Don't Worry Darling." Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 6 (UPI) -- Don't Worry Darling, in theaters Sept. 23, is a paranoid thriller for the modern world. It is as relevant as the paranoid thrillers of the '70s, a genre director Olivia Wilde updates, but directed at issues with which the new millennium is reckoning.

Jack (Harry Styles) and his wife, Alice (Florence Pugh,) live in the Victory Project, a '50s style cul-de-sac in which all the men go off to work, leaving the women home to keep house. The leader of the community is Jack's boss, Frank (Chris Pine), who is vague about what they actually do.

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Margaret (KiKi Layne) is the first to question Frank. Soon, Alice witnesses incidents that Jack and her neighbors try to gaslight and explain away.

Wilde and screenwriter Katie Silberman do a good job building the world of Victory between what they show and what the residents say. It's certainly odd that the secret work causes tremors large enough to shake buildings, and that the residents buy everything in town on credit (presumably backed by the company salary).

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The film steadily escalates the surreality of Victory with slight alterations to reality rather than big visual effects. Eggshells with no yolk inside are strange, and a glass wall that presses Alice into the wall is a literal depiction of her claustrophobia.

Those surreal visuals are accompanied by an effective sound design. Mumbles and whirls in the background create the sense of machinery at work behind the scenes.

Ultimately, the mystery of what is happening in Victory is less important than the how and the why. Viewers may get ahead of Alice's suspicions if they're more experienced in genre tropes, but Don't Worry Darling plays by the rules.

The issue at the heart of Don't Worry Darling is really mechanisms of control. While the small community of the Victory Project can't tackle larger social injustices, it is a microcosm of how systems try to control people.

And it never works because oppressed people always rebel. Communities as large as the whole world require more than one rebel, but for a movie it works, although one can't help but wonder if Margaret should be more than just a signpost for Alice. Margaret should get to rebel, too.

The themes underlying the Victory Project are very much about the patriarchy. Even without specific spoilers one can tell that's what Don't Worry Darling is addressing.

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The Victory Project is a world Frank created and sells to the men who work for him. It validates the men to provide for the women, but they resent it whenever a woman questions it.

More specific spoilers speak directly to that theme. So the point of Don't Worry Darling is less a sort of M. Night Shyamalan twist, although that's being a bit reductive about the larger themes of Shyamalan's work, too. Don't Worry Darling is an extreme version of some of the real world conversations necessarily being had.

Pugh avoids a lot of the familiar traps of paranoid protagonists in her portrayal of Alice. It helps that the script allows Alice to pick her battles, wait for the right moments to speak truth to power. When she is called upon to be frantic, the spiral feels earned.

Alice is the main character, but as Jack, Styles captures the mentality of a true believer. He can be either oblivious or passive-aggressive.

There's also a tap-dancing scene. Styles definitely is the best tap dancer among the cast of Don't Worry Darling.

Don't Worry Darling is a taut thriller that keeps tightening the noose around its heroine's neck. Its themes are poignant, but it works on a strictly narrative level, too.

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Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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